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Obamacare’s survival has emerged as the democrats’ big talking point against Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court, especially since a case challenging the health care law is scheduled be heard by the Court on November 10th. I’m certainly no a fan of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare). It is anticompetitive and it is a regulatory and pricing nightmare. However, the chances it will be struck down in its entirety are slim to none, whether Barrett is confirmed or not.

The Case Before the Court

The case at hand is California v. Texas, in which 21 democrat state attorneys general appealed a decision by a lower court that the ACA’s individual mandate is unconstitutional. The case against the ACA was originally brought by 20 republican state attorneys general based on Congress’ earlier repeal of the “tax” levied on violations of the law’s individual mandate. With that repeal, the mandate itself became unenforceable because it effectively disqualified the mandate as a matter of congressional intent. More background on the case can be found here.

The reinterpretation of the ACA penalty as a tax was the key turning point in an earlier case, National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, in which Chief Justice John Roberts’ deciding vote upheld the ACA’s individual mandate under Congress’ taxing power. Now, in California v. Texas, a District Court ruled for the plaintiffs that the entire ACA is unconstitutional, not just the individual mandate. Subsequently, however, an Appeals Court ruled only against the mandate. Thus, the case before the Supreme Court is primarily about the standing of the states that originally brought the suit and the status of the individual mandate. The case is unlikely to involve other components of the law, such as the list of minimum essential benefits and protections on pre-existing conditions.


The Appeals Court decision can be upheld by the Supreme Court without striking down the whole of the ACA. This rests on the doctrine of severability, which holds that a law’s unconstitutional provision(s) do not invalidate other provisions within the same law. The Court has often applied this doctrine in deference to the intent of legislation, to the extent that other parts of a law can stand on their own. Jonathan Adler, who has filed a brief with the Court in California v. Texas, writes that the individual mandate is clearly severable from the rest of the ACA:

When part of a statute becomes unenforceable, a court usually must ask whether Congress would have preferred what remains of the statute to no statute at all. Typically, it is a court that renders a provision unenforceable, and the court must hypothesize what Congress would have intended in that scenario. Courts also will sometimes assess whether the statute functions without the provision— a proxy for legislative intent.

But this case is unusual. It presents no need for any of these difficult inquiries because Congress itself—not a court—eliminated enforcement of the provision in question and left the rest of the statute standing. So congressional intent is clear; it is embodied in the text and substance of the statutory amendment itself.

Furthermore, contrary to the claims of the republican plaintiffs in the case, the ACA does not contain an inseverability clause. The Court is likely to invoke the severability doctrine, so Amy Coney Barrett’s (ACB’s) confirmation prior to the hearing would not lead to a ruling against the whole of Obamacare. The Court seems to like small steps.

What She Said

ACB has written that the Court’s original interpretation of the penalty for violating the mandate as a tax was flawed. Again, the argument was attributable to the opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts in NFIB v. Sebelius. The ACA never used the term “tax” in the context of an individual’s failure to comply with the mandate. Instead, it referred to the “penalty” multiple times. In the law’s original form, the clear legislative intent was to penalize certain behavior: failing to buy a product. ACB wrote the following of Roberts’ opinion in 2017:

He construed the penalty imposed on those without health insurance as a tax, which permitted him to sustain the statute as a valid exercise of the taxing power. Had he treated the payment as the statute did—as a penalty—he would have had to invalidate the statute as lying beyond Congress’s commerce power. … One would be hard-pressed to find many originalists who think that a court should find a way to uphold a statute when determinate text points in the opposite direction.


Josh Blackman says ACB need not recuse herself from hearing California v. Texas. First, the case is not a reconsideration of NFIB because the “tax” no longer exists; second, the current challenge to the mandate does not hinge on the plausibility of Roberts’ opinion in that case; and finally, recusals at the Supreme Court typically require a higher bar than lower courts in order to avoid a short-handed Court. Jonathon Adler discusses a recent moot court on California v. Texas in which ACB participated, and he seems to agree that recusal is unnecessary.

So ACB said the penalty was a penalty, not a tax, but the penalty no longer exists in any case. Congress left the individual mandate with no enforcement mechanism, a clear signal of its intent to set the mandate aside. The severability of the mandate from the ACA, and the “tax vs. penalty” focus of ACB’s remarks on the NFIB decision, offer little rationale for the view that ACB would argue to overturn the entirety of the ACA in California vs. Texas.

Essential Benefits

ACB has had another beef with the ACA, however, which has to do with certain items on the list of minimum essential benefits mandated by the law. The purpose of the list was much like that of the individual mandate: to force payment by all parties to cross-subsidize those who desired certain benefits. The list included contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization, and the requirements applied to individual policies as well as plans offered by private organizations, including those having moral and religious objections to the use of these products or services. Those individuals would be forced to offer and pay for the objectionable benefits just the same. In 2012, ACB signed a statement that called the requirement an “assault on religious liberty and the rights of conscience“. That argument seems even more compelling with today’s availability of cheap contraceptives over-the-counter. But the point raised by ACB is now irrelevant: this summer, the Court ruled against the requirement on contraceptives, but the Court didn’t say the whole list is unconstitutional. That aside, the list of essential benefits impedes the objective of offering low-cost coverage to the broadest swath of the population, and it is one of the reasons for the astonishingly high deductibles on Obamacare health policies.


The ACA has many flaws and has prompted a large number of legal challenges. It will continue to do so. Seven of those cases have already risen to the level of the Supreme Court, and there could be more. The ACA is a terrible law: it has driven up the cost of health insurance coverage through community rating and benefits mandates. It has driven up the cost of care through excessive regulatory measures and incentives for providers to consolidate. But while I am no fan of the law, the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Court does not presage its complete overturn. That will almost certainly have to wait for legislation on a complete replacement for Obamacare, which doesn’t seem imminent.